In his 1759 satirical masterwork Candide, the philosopher Voltaire ends on a note that, on first gloss, may read as optimistic. 'Il faut cultiver notre jardin.' (We must cultivate our garden), the eponymous hero states to his comrades as they wander home from an afternoon of enjoying the fruits of a neighbour's agricultural labour. However, in the context of Candide's world, where politicians are being executed and whole systems of government are falling apart at the seams, his imperative might seem trite, or even selfish. These larger stages of conflict and power are the antonym of Candide's garden. Voltaire's purpose in this final statement is to encourage a turning inward, utilising creation not only as an act of self-reflection and satisfaction, but as a possible landscape from which to help enact change. As the essayist Adam Gopnik writes, '"We must cultivate our garden," is that our responsibility is local, and concentrated on immediate action. Voltaire was a gardener and believed in gardens, even if other people were gardening them. His residual optimism lies in that alone.' 
Art making, especially in the 21st century, contains within it all the radical possibilities that Voltaire implies, though its processes often gloss as minute, small, unable to make a change. The exhibition My Secret Garden at Asia Art Center, presented and organised by Emilia Yin and Melanie Ouyang Lum, seeks to explore these quiet revolutions of private creation. It unites a group of artists whose practices all constitute tessellations of Voltaire's imperative to 'tend a garden.' Comprised of an all-female and femme cohort of artists, My Secret Garden also invites a critical view into the expansion of traditionally feminine domesticity, which includes within it the tending of gardens. The physical actions of cultivations, of care and creation, are transferred to living, breathing artistic mediums.
Throughout the exhibition, literal garden settings meld with more utopian abstractions of Eden. The work of Oh de Laval, Joeun Kim Aatchim, Hilary Pecis and Michelle Blade explore garden making as directly correlating to the artist's gesture, with their works full of vegetation and natural materials, small shrines to the natural world. By contrast, the paintings of Lauren Satlowski, the sculpture of Isabelle Albuquerque and Catalina Ouyang, and the photographs of Ilona Szwarc delve into corporeal surrealism, abstracting the concept of 'gardening' to encompass the grafting and growing together of the human, the animal, and the alien. A similar tension between the utopian and dystopian elements of creation can be found in the work of Jessie Mackinson and Bambou Gili, where green-tinged female forms toe the lines of real and unreal, alive and dead, settling their bodies into rooms overlooking lushly painted landscapes. Cydne Jasmin Coleby and Tahnee Lonsdale go even further into corporeal surrealism, finding landscapes within bodies themselves.
The paintings of Claire Colette and Huang Yanyan revel in the abstractions of nature, both in form and in material. Guimi You, and Yuri Yuan mine the landscapes of everyday life to create surreal, mnemonic topographies, while Dominique Fung, Becky Kolsrud, and Kat Lyons explore the gardens of memory within the bodies of humans and animals. The painted bodies of Haley Josephs, Elizabeth Glaessner, Danielle McKinney and Katherina Olschbaur combine figure and ground, colour and medium, to imagine the melding of the human within the environment.
The creation of a garden implies tenderness, domesticity, and even simplicity in its mission. Yet, as the works within My Secret Garden show, it can also contain within its tiny revolutions. Just as Voltaire implored his readers to cultivate their own gardens, so do the works in My Secret Garden give us keys forward into the worlds of creation in uncertain times.
Press release courtesy Asia Art Center.